Composer Jonathan Reid Gealt releases his fourth studio album Archetype December 3. The album features performances from Sasha Allen, MaKenzie Thomas, Sophia James, Brooke Simpson, Anilee List, Daniel J. Watts, Lilli Cooper, India Carney, Amber Iman, Kim Cruse, David Simmons Jr., Ashley Jayy, Mario Jose, and Gealt. Members of Broadway Inspirational Voices, including Ben Roseberry, Allen Rene Louis, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Casey Erin Clark, Desiree Rodriguez, and Adee David, are featured on the album as well.
Inspired by the 2016 election, Archetype includes 11 tracks of songs about love, politics, and what it means to be an American. Gealt takes us through the inspirations behind each song and how he chose the performers to record them in this exclusive track-by-track breakdown:
1. "Shades of Gray"
The initial origin for "Shades of Gray” came just after the presidential election in 2016. The opening line was written while I was sitting in a Starbucks in midtown the following week, staring out at what was otherwise a beautiful day, and yet I couldn’t shake the fog of what had just happened and the road which we were about to start traveling down. I had so many questions and so many concerns about our nation. How could we have gone from a man as brilliant, as empathetic, and as eloquent as Obama to the four years that were to follow? Nothing seemed clear to me, nothing was black and white, it was all just a continuous shade of gray. Over the course of the next couple of years, I would write more for it, tweak it, put it away, bring it out again, and rewrite it until, finally, it turned into the current version you hear on Archetype. I sang it for Stephen Oremus back in 2019, and he and Brian Usifer put together an incredible arrangement for it. I knew I wanted it to open the album and the minute I first heard MaKenzie Thomas sing I knew she had to be the ask, ‘cause G’DAMN—her voice. Man, am I so thankful that she said yes. The song needed heart, agility, power, and soul, and her voice and her artistry are a thing of miracles. For me, it was the only way to open the album.
2. "Power (Just a Bully)"
“Power (Just A Bully)” was actually the last song to be written for the album. I felt like we needed one more song for the album, and I had just been deep in a conversation with a friend about a current work situation that involved bullying. That tied in to recountings of the endless times we had both been bullied growing up and that tied in to the bullying and the fight for power across the current political climate, and I thought, “This is what the song needs to be about—bullying and the false idea of power it creates.” Most of the people I know have been bullied throughout their lives. It’s become such a major part of our culture that it’s difficult to discern any course of action that might possibly remedy it. The idea of tearing other people down in order to make yourself come out on top. The idea that you have to climb over other people in order to become victorious. The notion that other people are dispensable and you are the only person that matters. Well, I got home and started writing and found it was hard for me to stop. I got up to the bridge and felt that the song needed to break into new territory, something people might not have heard on my albums before—maybe spoken word or rap. I finished the outline and sent it over to Matt Hinkley, who helped put together an absolutely brilliant arrangement for it, and then I reached out to Daniel J. Watts and asked if he would be interested in writing and performing something on the bridge. Daniel and I have known each other for almost the entire time we’ve been in the city, and I’ve always had so much respect for him. He elevates everything he touches and under no circumstances was I going to write a rap and send it to Daniel Watts and ask him to rap my rap. Nope! So Hinkley and I sent him the full demo outline of the song and told him he had free rein to write whatever he felt was best between this point and this point. I didn’t actually get to hear what he had written for it until we were in the studio recording him on it. The moment he started, the tears began to flow. There’s no one in the world who does what Daniel does, and it was an honor to co-write this song with him.
3. "Black Heart (Bring Me Down)"
If anyone reading this is anything like me, you’ll be able to relate to this song. I have a tendency to fall for the wrong guy. Always. I will twist myself in so many unhealthy directions in an effort to try and make my bad decisions seem like good decisions, as if I’m convincing myself that I'm not willingly throwing myself into the void of a black hole, overlooking the warning signs allowing myself to get dragged down by someone who can’t give me the fuel my soul needs to help feed the love I’m longing for. I have so much love to give but it took me a long time (much longer than it should have) to realize that not everyone has the same capabilities for showing affection—nor should they! But even more so, so many men are raised to think that showing emotions and love somehow make them appear weak, which is asinine, in my humble opinion. This song was born out of the many attempts I’ve had over the course of my adult life to make something continue to work that clearly isn’t working. Overlooking so many small things that those small things turn into a large constant war with what feels like trying to jumpstart an emotionless, cold, dead heart, or a once thriving, beating heart that has turned black from the slow cold decay of so many war casualties that neither party involved has any more life to give to the other. And acknowledging when to walk away before you allow that person to drag you down and start hindering your ability to live your life the way you need and want to live it. Now all that being said, I wanted the song to be a celebration of that acknowledgment. A joyful, and excited, anthem for letting go of someone who has started to drag you into the abyss of their own black hole of despair. When I reached out to Justin Goldner about the arrangement on this one, not only did he knock it out of the park, he took it to a completely new level. And when Brooke Simpson said yes, after a brief fangirl moment in my room because I think she’s absolutely everything, I knew it was going to be really special.
4. "Let's Get Right Down to the Point"
“Let’s Get Right Down to the Point” is a tribute to two of the artists who inspired me the most growing up: Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey. The number of hours I spent in my room listening to their music and singing at the top of my lungs—and in their keys. I like to tell people my first voice teacher was Mariah because I taught myself how to sing while listening to her Music Box album. And my brother is a saint for putting up with it. I wanted this song to still sound current but with clear influences of old school soul and pop. Matt Hinkley and I have worked together for so long now that I knew he’d be brilliant with this one. And not only was he brilliant, he took it to a whole new level of exquisiteness. Now the hardest part for me was trying to think of someone who could really do it justice. Not just sing it beautifully but make you believe they lived through every syllable of each lyric they were singing so you felt like you were taken through the entire relationship with them while they sang about it. I’ve been a fan of Terrell Grice's masterful channel on YouTube since it’s inception and he had just started the first season of Race to the Blue. I started watching it, this voice started singing and my mouth dropped. The tone… The range… The power… The agility… Kim Cruse started singing and I immediately knew she was the person I needed to somehow reach out to for this song. I finally reached out to her and the first time I cried was when she responded with "Would love to!” The second time I cried was during her session. I was a weeping mess through the entire recording session. Thankfully it was all remote because I would have been embarrassed if anyone was actually in the room with me. Then when I heard the final mix…I cried again. Kim is so special, and I’m honored she said yes for this one.
5. "Ordinary Day"
“Ordinary Day” was written in the days following the Parkland massacre in February of 2018. Broadway Records was putting together a benefit album to raise money for Everytown in 2018 and we put an acoustic version of the song out to help raise money. When we were planning Archetype, I added it to the album track list because I wanted to fully flesh it out with a full-band arrangement. Justin Goldner worked on the acoustic arrangement in 2018 with me so I reached out to him again and asked him to fill it out for a full band. Vocally, it’s another incredibly difficult song. I had just recently heard Anilee List online and her voice rocked my soul to its core. I reached out and was speechless when she wrote back saying yes. Like a number of the folks on this album, Anilee was another blind ask. We didn’t know each other prior and the fact that so many of these artists I loved and admired were saying yes to a project with someone they didn’t know personally was incredibly humbling. Hearing Anilee sing is like being wrapped in a warm blanket by Mother Earth. Hearing Anilee sing a song about our lack of proper gun control will leave you speechless.
6. "Hey, 45"
The inspiration for this one is pretty self explanatory, so I don’t think it needs a long, drawn-out description. Lilli Cooper has been so graciously singing my songs for years now, and when it came time to find someone for “Hey, 45” who had the range, emotion, power, and the agility while still being able to pack the punch and grit it required, the list was Lilli. I’m honored every time she says yes. Her vocals, along with the brilliance that Brian Usifer and Stephen Oremus brought to the arrangement made for a truly magical combination.
7. "I Swear"
“I Swear" is an homage to ‘90s R&B. It was such a big part of my childhood that I wanted to have a song on the album that could reflect that. Brian Usifer took full advantage of the opportunity and created something that beautifully stands out from any other song I’ve had on any of my previous albums. And David Simmons Jr. was the top of the list for this one. In fact, he was the very first artist ask I made for the album, just before the world shut down due to COVID-19. I’ve been such a fan of his for a while now and wanted to find a way to work his glorious tones on this project. He’s also one of the kindest people in the business so it was a pleasure being able to work with him on this song.
“Open” was written in 2017-2018, and it was inspired by a conversation I had with a dear friend who was going through a break up at the time. The idea is that you can have someone incredible in every way and yet still not be able to fully grow together because you aren’t able to fully open yourself up to them. On paper you can be perfect for each other, but, in reality, something will forever be missing and the relationship has plateaued. How can you let go of someone who loves you so deeply when you know you can’t give that love back to them? In their case it ended over the holidays when they would both be surrounded by friends and family, so the bridge of the song digs into that, letting them go when they have a full support team around them to help them get through walking away from a relationship that had been years of their lives. Musically, we kept this one very simple, just piano and voice. It’s an incredibly rangy song with long phrases, and it demands unnecessary breath control. It’s definitely not the kindest song I’ve written for singers, but when I heard Sophia James singing for the first time there was no question as to who I wanted to ask for it. She’s scary talented and her tone…. Good lord.
9. "Tired Ol' Blues"
As far as what the song is actually about, it’s another pretty self explanatory one. But personally, the heart of the song is an anthem for how I keep myself going every day in order to not lose sight of the world we are all fighting for when so much of it is continually crumbling around us. The exhaustion of having to listen to power hungry old men day after day, year after year, circling the same tired, shallow ideals, wanting to make people conform to what they're personally comfortable with rather than molding the system to allow for individuality to thrive. It’s a reassurance for not losing sight of yourself and who you are when in the middle of what seems like a never-ending battle with injustice. The first time I heard India Carney sing I knew I wanted to find something to send her way. She has earth, air, water, and fire all wrapped up in a magical tone that makes me melt every time she opens her mouth, and I’m so thankful she said yes for this song.
Simply stated, “American” is a song about what America stands for to me. It’s what I grew up being taught, and it’s what I feel about who we are—and should be. We wanted to keep it simple so the message was easy to translate, and Hinkley hit a home run again with his acoustic arrangement on this one. When we started arranging the song for the album, I knew it was the only one on the album I could remotely think about singing on, partially because of the personal sentiment of the song and partially because I don’t have any business singing ANY of the other songs on this album. I’ve been a massive fan of both Mario Jose and Ashley Jayy for years now and have wanted to find something to work on together. I’m so honored they both said yes to singing this song with me, and I’m really proud of how this one turned out.
11. "I Don't Need Anything to Know I Love You"
Sasha Allen. I’ve been a fan of hers since her first “Father, sister, dearest voices” in the movie Camp [singing "How Can I See You Through My Tears" from Gospel at Colonus]. For almost 20 years now I’ve wanted to find a song we could work on together that would feel worthy of her unending gifts, and the fact that everything aligned for it to be this one is so special to me. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, and to hear her voice on it makes it all the more special. When we were talking about arrangement ideas for the song, Stephen mentioned that we needed Joseph Joubert, and I said “Of course we do! Would he do it?” I had never worked with him before but had been a huge fan of his for a while. We sent him the song and he said yes! Then we reached out to Michael McElroy about a choral arrangement. Michael is a genius, and he wrote the choral arrangement for “Momma Don’t Cry” on my first album as well, so any chance to work with him again I will jump at. As far as the origin of the song, it came out of a conversation I had with a friend about love and the idea that true love requires nothing in return. It’s given without any requirements for "compensation.” It seems like a very simplified phrase for the complexity of love but it’s the truest. Humbly, I think as a society we tend to over complicate love. To me it’s so simple.
Archetype is produced by Gealt, Stephen Oremus, and Brian Usifer, with orchestrations and arrangements by Joseph Joubert, Matt Hinkley, Justin Goldner, Michael McElroy, Oremus, Usifer, and Gealt. The Archetype band comprises Sean McDaniel, Q. Robinson, Michael Olatuja, Gregory Riley, James De La Garza, Sara Jacovino, Joubert, Hinkley, Usifer, and Goldner. Cover photo is by Curtis Brown Photography, and the cover design is by Robbie Rozelle.
Archetype is now available on iTunes.